2021 Formula 1 regulations
Aero Development implications
Unlike Brexit, the 2021 FIA Formula 1 regulations were agreed on 31st October as planned. With all new technical, sporting and financial regulations, it appears that big progress has at last been made to target better racing - which is great news for the sport’s future. This is unprecedented in F1 history, and a credit to all those involved in the formulation of the regulations.
The details of these regulations have been well documented in the media, but I’d like to just touch on a couple of areas: (1) one of the principal targets of closer racing; and (2) the implications of developing the 2020 and 2021 cars.
On the subject of targeting closer racing, and allowing cars to be less impacted by following another car, this has been achieved by heavily revised aerodynamics – a greater proportion of the downforce being created by the floor, reduced complexity around the front of the car, and a less turbulent wake.
The current 2019 cars have very sensitive aerodynamics, with complex designs and devices, especially around the front of the car, typically with multiple vortices being generated to control the air flow around the car. The complete system works well over a wide range of car conditions, but suffer significantly when placed in the wake of another car, due to the turbulent flow from the car in front. The result is a loss of downforce (as much as up to 50%), and hence it becomes difficult to follow another car through a corner. This has been an issue in F1 for some time, but increasingly so with more and more complex aerodynamic solutions.
The new 2021 regulations aim to reduce this downforce loss significantly (reportedly to be only a 5% loss), with more robust aerodynamic solutions and an increased proportion of downforce created from the floor (“ground effect”). These solutions are less disrupted due to the wake from another car. In addition, the wake produced from the new 2021 cars are aimed to be reduced, therefore less disruption to the following car’s performance.
Only time will tell though whether these regulations will have the desired impact, and the robust aerodynamic solutions can be maintained once the teams develop their cars. I suspect the targeted reduced wake will maintained, as this is predominantly due to some of the new features that will be controlled – the underfloor general geometry, the front tyre mudguards, and the wheel blanking for instance. However, it’s not clear as yet how the front of the car will develop with the teams, and whether more sensitive features will be incorporated. This will depend on the how robust the regulations are written, and whether there are any loopholes that can be exploited.
The teams now have approximately 14 months before their 2021 cars hit the track. How will teams balance the development of these new 2021 cars together with also continuing with their 2020 car’s development? This will vary with importance across the grid, likely influenced by each teams current position and priorities, plus their relevant resources and finances.
This is of course is nothing new to the teams, a similar scenario occurs every season. But with such big changes, the timing of how much to focus on 2020 vs 2021 is even more important. Does it give some of the midfield teams an opportunity to focus more on 2021, and increase their future competitiveness?
I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in a few similar scenarios in the past, with varying success - perhaps not with such sweeping changes, but at least similar in nature.
The 2005 season included some significant aerodynamic changes, in particular with the front wing and diffuser. The exact details of the diffuser were very late in getting finalised, as late as August 2004. I was at Renault at the time. The 2004 car wasn’t anything special, perhaps in some areas actually a step back from the 2003 car. The team made a bold decision to focus on the 2005 car and new regulations earlier than the norm, and even take a punt on the diffuser final specification. The team had an excellent relationship with Charlie Whiting at the time, and I believe this was very beneficial in understanding the potential regulations. This strategy proved to be extremely beneficial, and a huge effort in the aerodynamics department went into the diffuser development in particular. The resultant 2005 car was fast straight away in testing, and a clear step above everyone else. This helped the team to the 2005 Drivers and Constructors Championships, plus some influence towards the 2006 success as well.
I was at the Williams team during the significant 2009 technical regulation revolution. Similar to the proposed 2021 regulations, an aerodynamic study had been organised, tasked with allowing cars to race closer to each other. Although the study was deemed to be a success, it was later shown that the regulations were not robust enough, and in fact allowed the teams to develop their cars to even greater performance, and negate the study’s benefits. This was the year of the double diffuser, amongst other loopholes that followed. As with the 2021 regulations, the 2009 version consisted of sweeping changes to the aerodynamic configuration and the discussions around the details were ongoing for about 2 years. The Williams team was in a fortunate position to have two wind tunnels on site at their factory, and the decision was made to develop the 2008 and 2009 cars in parallel, with the 2009 car starting aerodynamic development in early 2008. This proved beneficial for 2009, with a competitive car given the team’s financial position, arguable the 4th fastest car during the year. The team only finished 7th in the Constructors Championship, but with Rosberg scoring all of the points, consistently in the top 8 (7th in the Drivers Championship), and no points for Nakajima. However, it was at a cost to the 2008 car's performance.
Of course, the biggest winners of 2009 were Brawn GP. They again were a team that benefitted from a very early focus on the new aerodynamic regulations. Previous owners Honda had committed significant investment to the project, with multiple aerodynamic groups and utilising as many as 4 wind tunnels during the development. Unfortunately for Honda, after all that investment, they decided to pull the plug on their F1 operation at the end of 2008, due to growing financial concerns. It was to Brawn’s benefit however, and the made a great PR story for the “new” team.
Further aerodynamic changes were planned for the 2017 season. And again, they were significant – wider cars, wider tyres, and more design freedom around the front of the car and the diffuser. The intent was faster cars to make them more exciting to watch, and harder to drive. Some of this was achieved, but once again the regulations failed to predict just how much the teams would utilise the available freedom. The front end of the cars became extremely complex, with multiple aerodynamic devices, vortex generators, winglets. This compounded the problem of following in another car’s wake, which is where we are today. During the early development period for these regulations (during 2016), I was once again at Renault. The Enstone team were on the back foot at the time, having only just been sold to Renault at the end of 2015, and still suffering from the post-Lotus era. The team’s strategy was to get cracking on the 2017 regulations in early 2016, which initially proved to be fruitful. However, mid-season 2016 it was decided to put more focus back onto the 2016 car, which wasn’t as competitive as deemed necessary. This delayed the development of the 2017 car, with limited progress on the 2016 car – it wasn’t a great trade. The team eventually developed the 4th quickest car during 2017, but without the lost development during 2016 it could have been a step better still.
So, the timing and focus, and achieving the right balance between 2020 and 2021 car development will be key for the teams. I expect most teams to favour the 2021 regulations as the principle focus, as this is the future and potentially a big opportunity for the next few years - in particular, the teams outside of the top 3 of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. It’s sure to be an interesting and busy time for the teams.